By B. A. Morelli, The Gazette
For Jamie Meyers, 2013 proved to be a pretty lucky year. In April, the Cedar Rapids woman won $50,000 from a $5 Super Crossword lottery game, and about a week later her hot streak continued with a $10 Cash Inferno ticket that revealed a $100,000 prize.
Andrea Sauser of Farifax had some pretty good luck, too, scratching off a $100,000 prize while on a break from work at Hibu in Cedar Rapids.
A number of others have won prizes of $50,000, $30,000 and $25,000 in Cedar Rapids this year, rounding out about $800,000 in big ticket winners.
December generally marks the beginning of the Iowa Lottery's busy season, whether because the chance of winning is a distraction from Iowa's often bitter cold winter or because tickets make quick and easy stocking stuffers. For the "it could be me" crowd, these success stories offer plenty of allure to keep trying to strike it rich, rather than consider the much more likely scenario — losing.
"The chance that you will win is extremely small, but the chance that someone wins is extremely high," said Russell Lenth, a University of Iowa emeritus professor of statistics and actuarial science. "We focus our attention on the people that win rather than the people that lose."
And the truth is Cedar Rapids hasn't been that lucky when it comes to the lottery this year, at least compared to other communities around Iowa.
The Gazette analyzed 2013 lottery sales for instant, scratch and pull-tab games through October 27, and winnings for those games of $600 or more for the same time period. The Iowa Lottery office, which provided the date, is not able to provide details about prizes of $600 or less, according to a lottery spokeswoman.
Cedar Rapidians spent $15.6 million on lottery games, while Cedar Rapids retailers dished out $807,445 to 146 winners through October 27. The City of Five Season ranks as No. 2 city in Iowa behind Des Moines in spending, but only No. 8 in winning.
In total, Cedar Rapids retailers have returned 5 cents of winnings per dollar spent.
Despite this relatively low return on investment, news of winning tickets seems to feed high hopes for finding luck. Last year, a group of 20 workers at Quaker Oats split a Powerball jackpot worth $240 million. Hy-Vee on Edgewood Road sold the ticket.
Iowa's top two lottery retailers for two years running are the Wilson Avenue and Johnson Avenue Hy-Vees in Cedar Rapids. Hy-Vee on Edgewood Road is in the top 1 percent of all lottery retailers in Iowa.
"That does help when you sell the winning ticket," said Greg Wery, store manager of the Wilson Avenue Hy-Vee, which has the most lotto, scratch and pull-tab sales in the state. "It really grows your public awareness that you are selling tickets and people are winning big money."
Iowa Lottery spokeswoman Mary Neubauer in Des Moines said lottery officials have a name for it.
"We call it the lucky store phenomenon," Neubauer said. "We notice when a store has a lucky winner, and it doesn't have to be a big jackpot. People want to have the same good luck the other person has.
"Of course, we tell everyone in reality it doesn't make a difference. The tickets are all randomly distributed.
"We human beings are a superstitious lot," she said.
Most people understand the random chance and long odds. But those are outweighed by the glimmer of hope for fortune, no matter how slim.
It's those prizes of $1 or $5 that keep the lottery going, the UI's Lenth said.
"Those smaller prizes make the lottery work," Lenth said. "If you occasionally win $5, it makes you think you can win some day. The small prizes help the lottery stay in business because if never win, you wouldn't keep playing."
The luckiest city through Oct. 27 has been the tiny northwest Iowa town of Peterson, which had paid out $2.37 per dollar spent. That came from one big $50,000 winner, which offset the $21,000 spent on lotto and scratch, or $64 per capita in the town of 330 people.
Peterson, Sheldon, Decorah, Letts and Oskaloosa are the only communities that broke even on the lottery this year, at least on the big prizes of $600 or more.
As a state, Iowa retailers collected $278 million in revenue, while paying out $25 million in prizes of $600 or more through late October. (The Lottery's Neubauer said that when factoring in all winnings, the payout — how much the lottery awards to all winners in total — actually ranges from 50 percent to 75 percent of sales, depending on the game.)
That's an average of 9 cents won per dollar invested — slightly luckier than the average in Cedar Rapids where the 5 cents won tied for No. 131 among the 571 cities where the lottery was played. About 180 communities that played the lottery were shutout on prizes of $600 or more.
The $90 spent per capita in Iowa on scratch and lotto is slightly less than in Cedar Rapids, which spends $122 per capita, ranking No. 311 highest in Iowa.
The biggest spenders on the lottery per capita tend to be Iowa's smallest communities.
Bevington, a town of 62 just south of Des Moines, has per capita spending of $2,707, followed by Percival, a town of 87 on the western border of Iowa, with $2,075 spent per capita.
Elk Run Heights, a town southeast of Waterloo with a population of 1,129, spends $420 per capita, the highest of any Iowa city with at least 1,000 people. It is followed by Riverside, a community of 1,040 south of Iowa City, that spent $345 per capita on scratch and lotto games through October.
But it's hard to really get a feel for luck and spending habits by looking at small towns.
While the numbers may reveal something about gambling in rural parts of Iowa, they also can be quickly thrown off because the sample size is so small. One big win or an extenuating circumstance, such as a large employer paired with a small population or a lottery retailer located off a busy interstate exit, can wildly skew the numbers.
For example, Bevington, near Interstate 35, and Percival, next to Interstate 29, both have an off ramp that exits into town.
A better comparison for Cedar Rapids may be to look at Iowa's larger communities, but even on that front, Cedar Rapids has been comparatively unlucky.
Among Iowa's 20 largest communities, Cedar Rapids per capita spends the seventh most, but it's only the 15th luckiest when considering what was won versus spent. In this case, Council Bluffs has been the luckiest of the bigger cities.
The good news is the lottery tends to be cyclical, so while 2013 hasn't been kind to Cedar Rapids, there's always next year.
Maintaining the fantasy of a big win really isn't such a bad thing, said Joan DiFuria, a psychotherapist and co-founder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute in Kentfield, Calif.
"It's a chance to win and it's fun," said DiFuria. "The holidays are a joyful time, a hopeful time, a time of making resolutions ... . Fantasizing about what could be gives people a distraction from job or problems. It's a comfort, and that's not such a bad thing."
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